2022-23 Record: 20-12 overall, 14-8 GPAC (T-5th); NAIA national qualifier (round of 32).
Head Coach: Drew Olson (443-133, 17 years; 15 national tournament appearances; 12 GPAC regular season/tournament titles; five national semifinal advancements, including two runners up; 2019 national champions).
Returning Starters: F Abby Heemstra; G Abby Krieser; F Sadie Powell; G Taysha Rushton; G Mackenzie Toomey.
Other Key Returners: G Megan Belt; G Kendal Brigham; F Kristin Vieselmeyer.
Key Loss: F Mackenzie Koepke.
2022-23 GPAC All-Conference: Taysha Rushton (First Team); Abby Krieser (Second Team); Sadie Powell (Second Team); Kendal Brigham (Honorable Mention); Mackenzie Toomey (Honorable Mention).
2022-23 NAIA All-American: Taysha Rushton (Honorable Mention).
The top eight scorers return from a 2022-23 Concordia University Women’s Basketball team that reached the NAIA national round of 32. The makeup of the roster gives Head Coach Drew Olson his most experienced group since the 2019-20 season that was cut short (by COVID-19) when the Bulldogs held the nation’s No. 1 ranking. Following a solid 20-win season, dynamic guard Taysha Rushton and company have set their sights on a return to the NAIA’s biggest and brightest stage: the final site of the national tournament.
For much of Olson’s career, the program has lived at the Tyson Events Center, where an NAIA national champion is crowned annually. The competitive dynamics changed a bit starting with the 2020-21 season when two divisions of NAIA basketball became one. This is a program that isn’t going to back down from a challenge. This go-round, Concordia believes it has the right mix of veterans and depth of talent to shoot for the stars.
“It was a tough draw,” said Olson of the team’s 2023 national tournament assignment. “I thought we handled it really well. I thought we played well, especially that first game against Columbia. Thomas More was just really, really good. We took some things away from the Thomas More game and learned from it. It kind of motivated us a little bit for this offseason. I just think our team is very motivated. We know what it takes and we’re ready to take that next step.”
Hard lessons at the national tournament just might serve the Bulldogs well entering the 2023-24 campaign. Tournament exits prior to the final site are deemed somewhat of a disappointment only because of the astounding success Olson has experienced at the helm of his alma mater. Olson’s accomplishments include a national championship in 2019, three national title game appearances, five national semifinal trips and 12 combined GPAC championships. All those things are nice, but Olson is focused on giving this current squad every opportunity to enjoy a special season of its own.
The starting lineup will look familiar to Bulldog fans as Concordia welcomes back the likes of Rushton, Abby Krieser and Mackenzie Toomey in the backcourt and Abby Heemstra and Sadie Powell in the frontcourt. The presence of Kendal Brigham is like having a sixth returning starter considering the minutes she’s played in her career. Out of those six integral players, four are seniors and two are juniors (in terms of academic stature).
Olson has had a blast coaching the senior class, which also includes guard Hanna Spearman (who is making her way back from injury). Said Olson, “It’s a really special group. I don’t think I’ve ever had a group that’s gone through as much as they have. With COVID their first year, it was different and it was weird. It was really hard with masks in terms of getting to know each other. We had a decent year and then had kind of a rough year their sophomore year. Then last year was just so fun. I’m really proud of them and grateful for how they have bought into my coaching. The culture we have at Concordia is thanks to a lot of the past players, but I think they’ve done a great job of continuing that tradition. They’re incredible people and I love coaching them on a daily basis.”
It all starts with Rushton, a Midland, Texas, native and an impact player the day she stepped on campus. As just a freshman, Rushton poured in 27 points in the national round of 16 upset of fourth-ranked Marian (Ind.). After three seasons as a Bulldog, Rushton ranks 14th in program history with 1,408 career points while draining 217 3-point field goals. Trey-sha! (Okay, so she’s not a huge fan of that nickname). Last season was Ruhston’s best yet as she shot 42.5 percent from the floor and 41.1 percent from 3-point range. Her shot attempts went down and her efficiency went up.
Prior to the season, Rushton took a moment to reflect on the journey to this point. Four years ago, she made the decision to spend her college days in Nebraska. Her love of basketball and the camaraderie with her teammates has kept her here.
“It’s probably the best decision I’ve made in my life,” Rushton said. “I went through some rough patches freshman and sophomore year thinking about leaving because I wanted to go to cosmetology school. I love basketball too much and I decided to stay. It’s honestly so crazy looking back. This is my senior year. No way I’ve already been here four years. I’ve made the best friends on my team. I have great relationships with the coaches. I love Concordia and I’m so glad I chose to come here.”
With Rushton leading the way, the Bulldogs boast a backcourt that will be a major pain for opposing teams that have to deal with the patented full-court press. Defensively, the Lincoln North Star product Krieser is as pesky as anyone in the GPAC. Her exploits were a major reason why Concordia topped the GPAC with an average of 19.3 turnovers per game forced in 2022-23. Krieser also made major strides offensively and averaged 9.8 points while shooting 49.0 percent from the floor as a sophomore.
Meanwhile, Toomey is a scrapper who can fill the stat sheet and Brigham brings speed, athleticism and 3-point shooting to the floor. The core guards – Brigham, Krieser, Rushton and Toomey – each played at least 22.9 minutes per game last season. In other words, this is one of the more experienced and battle-tested backcourts in the entire country.
Said Olson in expanding upon the talents of Krieser, “We just want to see her continue to do what she was doing last year at the end of the year. I thought she was incredible defensively and I’m not sure she got the credit she deserved. I think she’s one of the best defensive players in our league. Offensively, she’s shooting it well and she’s incredible in transition and a great driver. She’s someone that has even more in her, and I’m really excited to see that.”
The Bulldogs would have started the same five in all 32 games last year if not for the shuffling Olson did on senior day to give a nod to his most veteran players. Frontcourt stalwarts Heemstra and Powell did hear their names called to begin all 32 contests in 2022-23. The 6-foot Powell does a little bit of everything in terms of shooting, low-post scoring, defending and rebounding. She averaged 9.7 points and 4.7 rebounds last season. An Iowa native like Powell, Heemstra is a vital piece to the team’s defense in the post and contributed 5.1 points and 3.9 rebounds last season.
As freshmen in 2022-23, both guard Megan Belt and forward Kristin Vieselmeyer saw significant action. Unfortunately for Belt, she went down with a knee injury at CIT and has been on the mend this offseason. She appears to be on track to play this November and is a major 3-point threat (35.2 percent in 2022-23). As for Vieselmeyer, she showcases a unique ability to finish around the basket and was a dead-eye shooter from the foul line (59-for-70). She appeared to be scratching the surface of her potential. Another returning contributor is guard Reece Snodgrass.
Then there are the freshmen. A handful of those players could see varsity action, including JJ Jones and Sammy Leu. The frenetic pace that Olson prefers typically lends to Concordia making liberal use of its bench talents.
The good news is that the young players won’t have to be thrown into the fire before they’re ready. The current seniors went through trials and tribulations as youthful players in their early years, but they’re older, wiser and well-equipped to lead this team to greater heights. Says Olson, “There have been ups and downs. When you’re relying on freshmen to play right away, there are going to be some definite challenges. We’ve learned a lot throughout those times. They have shown a lot of toughness, and they’re really fun to be around. They want to win, and I think they’re ready to take another big step this year.”
Added Rushton, “It’s super nice with us upperclassmen leading by example because we do have a lot of freshmen trying to work through it and get playing time. It makes everything flow a lot easier. We’ve already put in like four different defenses, and they’re all looking pretty good. We’ve put in new sets. Our preseason has been pretty fun.”
The Bulldogs finished last season outside of the NAIA coaches’ poll, but they expect to break back into it this winter. Quite frankly, the coaches and players inside the program don’t have much regard for outside expectations. “It doesn’t really phase us,” Olson said. “It’s a preseason poll and it all shakes out in the end. If it gives us a chip on our shoulder and motivates us, sure, great. But it doesn't really matter. We’ve got a tough schedule. We just focus on Sterling and Marian the first couple games. We’re really excited to host them. I think those are going to be great basketball games.”
Rushton got a taste for the final site as a freshman and she wants back in. Said Rushton, “Our goal is to make it to Sioux City and make a run at a national championship. We definitely have big goals this year.”
The 2023-24 season will officially tip off at the 24th annual Cattle Classic coming up on Nov. 3-4. The opponents that Concordia will welcome to Friedrich Arena will be Sterling College (Kan.) and Marian University (Ind.). The complete schedule can be found HERE.